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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Osaka House wins over students with a big menu and bartime hours
Late-night sushi

Credit:Carolyn Fath

Tiny restaurants have, for me, density akin to a collapsing star: They draw me gravitationally. Remember Pel'Meni on State Street? Its menu contained two dishes of reasonably Russian origin: potato dumplings and meat dumplings. You could add some toppings and walk out with a box of 10 or so for $5. I thought it was brilliant.

I was wrong, of course. It closed after a run of about four years. (Sniff.)

The same space - 505 State St. - has changed hands a few times since, and now offers us Osaka House, replacing Sushi Hut, and for my part I am never disappointed to see a new Japanese joint.

It struck inviting chords when I strolled in. A sushi bar that could accommodate four close friends and a handful of small tables that could seat maybe 20, simple settings of folded napkins and chopsticks on tables. It was tidy and welcoming.

There's an upstairs. It calls itself a sake bar, which is pretty funny. It offers a few supermarket sakes, and heavily advertises sake bombs. Blended with fruit-infused liquor, Red Bull and other fine mixers, these seem designed to convince drinkers that sake must be that secret, elusive ingredient they taste in Fuzzy Navels.

Little matter; the food is downstairs. I sat; a server promptly brought water. Then came the menu. Labeled Edo Garden (hmm...) along a cover edge, it opened to page after page of items - 16 appetizers, nine salads, a couple soups, 27 hibachi entrees, bento boxes, udon, yaki soba, donburi, teriyaki, sushi, sashimi, rolls and a partridge in a pear tree. A half-dozen special rolls were inscribed in several colors on a dry-erase board in need of refreshing - a Lady Gaga roll, a Spicy Girl, and so forth. Seemed ambitious, all these options, but what do I know? It's not like only two kinds of dumplings worked out.

I weighed the matter. I'm sitting five blocks from Library Mall holding a menu as heavy as a course reader. From over the delivery menu taped in the front window I can spot student housing. The drinks upstairs and the special rolls down sound like 2 a.m. Some student-types at the next table assured me “Everything's good.” Osaka House knows its clientele.

The tempura combination was good. Sweet shrimp, perfectly heated calamari, various sweet vegetables and a piece of white potato, all tasty despite a thick, bland batter. The cubed beef hibachi was seared to medium well and coated with a sticky, sweet brown sauce. It was served over a similarly coated stir-fry of carrots, broccoli, bamboo shoots and other stuff. Alongside, a dish of soft udon noodles sat in a less-sticky sweet, brown sauce. All perfectly fine.

The sashimi was quite good. Clean and fatty, the salmon, tuna, red snapper and white tuna all lifted spirits. The Spicy Girl roll? Tuna and black and orange tobiko on top of the reverse roll (seaweed inside, rice outside) were a nice touch, as were the crunchy tempura flakes. It looked hearty and appealing, but the spicy sauce slathered on top and stuffed inside with the salmon, yellowtail and avocado was roughly as peppery as cod. It muddied everything.

The bento box had some hits, some misses. The Alaska roll was quite nice, the shumai terrific: six steamed dumplings cushioning a succulent filling that tasted like every fishball should strive to taste. The teriyaki salmon was a little firm, but not overly sweet. The (canned?) pineapple made me sad.

Fine sashimi and sushi available until 2 a.m. is a service to mankind, and for that I would happily return. But it seems to me that a small spot sharing a menu with two more spacious Japanese restaurants (Edo on South Park Street and Edo Garden on Monona Drive; the menus echo misspellings and prices) in one small metropolis should consider tightening its menu.

Add some decent sake and a dry bubbly - nothing goes better with sushi - and I'd give a curt head-bow the next time I step in.

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